When Anne Bancroft, as the kooky old spinster Miss Dinsmoor, orders the young Finn (Jeremy James Kissner) to “Dance! Dance! Dance!,” I couldn’t help laughing. It reminded me of an early episode in 30 Rock when Jenna (Jane Krakowski) is at a ball trying to land an Austrian prince (played with so much grotesque brilliance by Paul Reubens), himself a long-suffering victim of the royal family’s generations of in-breeding. (He dies in the scene after drinking champaigne because his body cannot metabolize grapes.) The prince orders Jenna to “Dance!” and then keeps requesting different styles: “Jazz! Tap! Jitterbug! Charleston! Interpretive! Twirl! Do it again! Keep Twirling!”
Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 adaptation of Great Expectations may be the most beautiful film of the 90s. And it’s no wonder, because the director of photography is Emmanuel Lubezki. (He just won his second Academy Award for his work on Birdman; his first win was for 2013’s Gravity, also directed by Caurón.) The movie is like a dance: every image connects thematically and has a rhythm; the scenes are elegant, beautiful, and complex; they are full of associations of other movies—Sunset Boulevard, A Streetcar Named Desire, maybe even a little of Bertolucci’s The Conformist—and yet they do not feel like rip-offs of other works. They may be camera-work riffs, or maybe they’re just the result of two cinematic show-offs. But who cares? The visual beauty of Great Expectations is so dazzling that it threatens to undermine my own stubborn love of plot.
Cuarón isn’t interested in telling the Dickens story faithfully in terms of plot: he changes many of the names, the setting, and the time period. But thematically, Cuarón beautifully captures the essence of Dickens’s great work and the classism at the heart of Pip’s (or Finn’s) rise from poverty to success and his deep desire to be great, to be a gentleman, to attain a girl (Estella, played as an adult by Gwyneth Paltrow) who is ranks above him. So, while Great Expectations `98 lacks some of the weight of the novel (in the same way that the stunning, naturalistically filmed 2011 Jane Eyre was gorgeous to look at it but strangely less effective than the novel itself or even some of the stagier filmings of the material).
But, while I didn’t feel as much of an emotional wallop in Cuarón’s Great Expectations, I was struck by the way he gets movies and how to turn novels into movies, more than most filmmakers. When we’re watching two masters like Cuarón and Lubezki at work, we see all that is possible in movies that cannot be achieved on a page: the splendiferous greens which permeate every image, finding themselves on clothes, furniture, drapes, and in the lighting itself; the deliciously Gothic Miss Dinsmoor (Miss Havisham in the novel), played like an even older version of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard, with a little Blanche DuBois thrown in for good measure. (The film is set in Florida, on the Gulf.)
Ethan Hawke plays Finn, who grows up with his simple handyman brother-in-law Joe (Chris Cooper) and becomes a sensation in the New York art world thanks to an unknown benefactor. Robert De Niro plays the escaped conflict Finn assists early in the movie. The film is at its most bizarre (and delightful) when dwelling with the eccentric Miss Dinsmoor, who makes him come visit her dilapidated Spanish mansion, which looks like a resort hotel that was abandoned thirty years ago with all the furniture and the glasses still perfectly arranged (though they're now covered with a thick layer of dust). With Hank Azaria, Kim Dickens, and Josh Mostel. Cuarón co-wrote the screenplay with David Mamet and Mitch Glazer.